There. I said it. And only half the reason was a controversial reader-grab. Nevertheless, even accounting for the nostalgia bias and the changing trends since Final Fantasy VII’s release in 1997, Cloud Strife is still an exceptionally multifaceted character. Of course, there is no one true measure of quality of characters (in games or otherwise) but at the very least, Cloud is one of the rare characters in games with depth, complexity, and a smooth, believable arc of character development.
The first time that the player sees Cloud, he’s vaulting out of a train and single-handedly dispatching a group of armed guards. He’s detached and impersonal, a sword for hire whose only priority is completing his job and getting paid. Cloud is set up as a masculine power fantasy. He’s an elite military specialist gone rogue against an oppressive “corporatocracy”, who is motivated not just by rugged individualism but also to protect the women that he encounters. He reacts to crisis with an aloof swish of his hair and a cocky slouch. For the first half of Final Fantasy VII, the player takes the role of this capable, slightly arrogant warrior figure.
Most video game heroes resemble Cloud after the opening credits. They are outlets of the same male power fantasy. But halfway through the game, layers of Cloud’s facade are peeled away. When he demands that Aeris or Tifa stay out of danger, he’s incapable of holding them back—and indeed both women prove well suited to dealing with danger and are even necessary to the quest. After all, Cloud is not hunting down Sephiroth, he is being led by him.